James Keogh, the man behind Vance Joy, is optimistic these days, though he can’t point to any one reason why. Maybe it’s because the 33-year-old’s single Missing Piece — his first in more than three years — was released May 21 and is moving its way up airplay, streaming, and primetime TV, including a coveted spot on Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe it’s because Keogh says he’s enveloped himself in an “ignorance bubble,” eschewing the news to avoid its boom-and-bust emotional cycle. But, very likely, it’s because after a long year hunkered down in his native Melbourne, Australia, Keogh received his paperwork to expatriate and has since reunited with his longtime girlfriend in Barcelona, Spain, where he Zooms in to The Manual.
“I don’t understand the Spanish news because I don’t read Spanish,” he says, laughing. “I’m not sure if there’s a correlation, but it’s possible.”
With the family sounds of a full apartment building seeping through the white walls that surround him and into the tiny microphone in which he speaks, Keogh seems little changed since he burst onto the international scene in 2013. Riptide, a song that in part landed him a five-album deal with Atlantic Records, could more accurately be described as a phenomenon, appearing on radio, TV, advertising, and across the PA system of your neighborhood supermarket with such blanketing ubiquity that it’s since been certified six-times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. But far from being blinged out, Keogh is understated in a green short-sleeve button-down, the only noticeable difference between his glossy promo photos and a late afternoon on a Tuesday being his trademark mass of curly brown hair, which appears matte in the window light, implying a lack of product. He speaks in a not-quite-sotto voce but is quick to laugh at a story or join along on a rabbit trail. He is the anti-rock star despite having all the accomplishments of one.
“I do intend to learn the language, but it’s nice to have a whole new culture to be absorbing,” he says of his time exploring the Gothic Quarter. “It’s good for fresh energy, especially after being cooped up in Melbourne for a lot of last year.”
Vance Joy’s latest single, Missing Piece, was written in true 2020 fashion: via Zoom. With Joel Little (Lorde, Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, and others), who was concurrently locked down in his native New Zealand, Keogh built off Little’s light and bouncy guitar lick, which propels the listener through verse into anthemic chorus. The lyrics are equally reflective of the timeframe of their composition, themed on the anticipation of a reunion after a long absence and the challenge of relationship via FaceTime and its “pixelation.” (Keogh admits its theme was inspired by the distance between himself and his girlfriend, who, as a non-Australian citizen, would not have been allowed into the country.) “I didn’t write it because I was hoping people would relate to it. It was just something I was experiencing,” he says. Still, it’s not hard to see how others might appropriate it as emblematic of their own feelings after a year-plus of social distancing. “A lot of people are biding their time to see each other.”
Despite this strong start to the song, the pair stalled when it came to the bridge, and that’s where the song remained, like a finger-painting on a refrigerator, until Keogh says he played its inchoate form for his mother and father around Christmas. (Longtime fans of Vance Joy will remember that Keogh has integrated his parents into his new-material demo process since pre-Riptide days, and his mother and father remain the first to hear his new music.) With its separated-and-reunited theme so universal, Keogh’s mom encouraged him to release the damn thing. “I realized pretty quickly that you can’t just release a song the week after you want to release it,” he says, “but at least it created the impetus to go out and finish it.”
That it took six months from finally finishing the song, bridge and all, to see its release illustrates the mass of the machine behind Vance Joy. But it’s also indicative of Keogh’s collaborative process — somewhat remarkable for a solo artist — which includes plenty of back-and-forth with bandmates and others as to its production choices and instrumentation. The result, which includes warbly organ and rudimental snare drum, is obviously bigger than any one man: Evoking a Mumford-and-Sons-size build to the chorus, it’s both innocently hopeful and seemingly destined for a massive (and vaccinated) arena crowd that collectively can lose its shit in a cathartic release after a year of lockdown and anxiety.
Still, as Keogh works to promote Vance Joy’s first single of a new album cycle, as well as tease a potential fall full-length release, he jokes that he spends his days in Spain in a mix of “procrastinate and chill out.” Don’t believe it. Prod him a little more, and he’ll admit to continuing a years-long rediscovery of skateboarding during lockdown, achieving a kickflip proficiency that his childhood self could scarcely imagine. He’s also added three or four feature dishes to his culinary repertoire. (Total count of said current repertoire: three or four.) And, with Fire Island, N.Y.-based beachwear company Fair Harbor, he’s released a collection of signature swim trunks, for which he sketched the art pattern. It’s the latter of these that’s emblematic of his values of environmental initiatives (Fair Harbor makes its swimming trunks out of recycled water bottles) and conservation, the proceeds of which are donated to koala and sea turtle rescues. “When I come to places in America, there’s such a big, open sky, and it’s that sense of size and space and that epic-ness of nature. That’s something that I think Australians have ingrained in them, too,” he says. “That just has a good impact on your mental health. I wouldn’t want to be in a landlocked spot for too long.”
At the time of this writing, Keogh hasn’t announced Vance Joy tour dates, and with much of the world still waiting on vaccinations, it’s understandable why. But he says he’s recently come to understand how much he’s missed the thrill of a live audience, despite struggling with the stage component of the rock star’s life early in his career. As part of a countrywide remembrance in March for the late Michael Gudinski, the legendary Australian music businessman and consummate advocate for the Australia’s music scene, Keogh busked at several locations throughout Melbourne, reigniting his passion for the IRL show. “I left that totally energized,” he says. “I hadn’t appreciated that that was something that was missing from my life in the last year.
“I haven’t missed playing shows so much that I’m, like, ‘I need to go back on tour for four months straight.’ And I don’t think I’m going to be flying around the arena on cables,” he continues. “I feel like it’s been a long road from my first shows, looking down at your feet, and being, like, cool.”
And Keogh smiles. “Inevitably,” he says, “you get better.”
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